While researching for the blog this week, I came across a recent article on the NSTA Blog called Balloon Racers that outlines a classroom activity for students where they build, test, and modify balloon-powered cars. Author of the article and science teacher in Indiana, Shannon Hudson walks her readers through this experiment using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to frame the purpose of the activity and explain how it will fit into her students’ curriculum. She describes how she has students first explain the basics of Newtons Third Law, probe into the basic function of their car, and take baseline measurements of its performance before beginning any work. After this, her activity becomes an iterative process of brainstorming solutions to a problem, planning modifications for their cars, creating and testing a prototype, redesigning their cars to try to improve on their initial designs, and then applying the concepts they learned to broader issues. I suggest you read the article since it isn’t long and looks like a fun activity that any science teach could incorporate into their lesson plans.
So far with this blog, I’ve written about STEM/STEAM and phenomenon-based learning several times. What the NSTA article above reminded me of, however, is the importance of engineering principles being present in modern science education. Even though the concept of engineering has popped up multiple times on this blog as the “E” in a few acronyms – mainly in STEM/STEAM and SEP (the Science and Engineering Principles in the NGSS) – I feel like I haven’t given it the attention it deserves yet. With that said, this blog will be focusing on how engineering principles fit into science education in the US.
One prominent term in regard to this blog’s topic is the engineering design process. As I looked through the internet to research this process, I found multiple variations on its basic structure and the graphics used to lay it out, although the bare-bones remained the same across the board. For example, this article from the NSTA outlines just three steps in the process: Define, Develop Solutions, and Optimize. It then goes on the describe how the intended skills developed by each of those steps change as students go from kindergarten through twelfth grade. NASA, alternatively, outlines six steps: Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Experiment, and Improve. They even provide an excellent video series that walks you through each step of the process using the sample activity of using rockets (balloons) to take a satellite (toy) to the moon (across the room on a string). I highly suggest looking through these sources and watching NASA’s (short) video series, as they are very thorough. Another article you might enjoy and want to check out is this post on Interesting Engineering that gives perspective on each step of the process from the points of view of famous engineers.
In a nutshell, the engineering design process boils down to finding a problem that needs solving, planning and brainstorming solutions to that problem, designing prototypes, and, finally, testing and modifying your designs to create the best solution. Engineers in this process also have to consider things like the cost of materials used and ease-in-manufacturing while they are prototyping, testing, and choosing between design options. It is a very iterative process, meaning that engineers will repeat the steps as many times as they need to in order to wind up with a solution they are happy with.
The engineering design process is a nice compliment to the scientific method. It is important to note that engineering and science are not the same thing. Science asks a question and investigates it methodically until it ends up with new knowledge. Engineering, on the other hand, finds a problem and then investigates possible solutions until an ideal solution is found. The two processes can be looked at as two sides to the same coin, with one side methodically finding novel new information and the other solving a problem with a new or more-efficient piece of technology that solves that problem. Both are important to learn, as they give a framework for how to make a new discovery or create a solution to a problem.
Now, engineering hasn’t always been a part of what we know as “science education.” In fact, engineering has quite a long and varied history in US education, as described in detail by Professor Marjaneh Issapour and Dr. Keith Sheppard in their paper “Evolution of American Engineering Education.” Starting off as a skill learned by studying under other professionals and slowly growing into a standardized higher-education subject throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, engineering has traditionally been a field of higher education study specifically for people innately interested in the engineering workforce. Since the late 1980s, however, a lot of attention has been paid to the lack of engineers that are being produced by the American education system. Because of this push, the National Science Education Standards (NSES) were created in 1996, and, more recently, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in 2013 in order to encourage STEM development. The article’s authors wrap up the article by emphasizing the importance of continuing to grow and fund the implementation of the NGSS in our nation’s schools going forward.
If you remember from my last blog covering phenomenon-based learning, the NGSS contain three categories, those being Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), and Crosscutting Concepts (CCs). As you can tell, engineering and the engineering design process find their way into the NGSS via the SEPs, which can be read about in detail on the NSTA website. Despite having distinct differences, these SEPs are designed to build on the practices that are essential to both disciplines. In creating a standardized tie between the two, the NGSS are trying to encourage the growth of generally important knowledge seeking and solution designing skills that any scientifically literate person should possess in today’s world.
Going back to the Balloon Racers article that prompted this post, one sentence stuck out to me. Hudson writes that her activity “is much more than a simple design challenge, which often doesn’t give students the opportunity to make revisions.” When I first started reading about the engineering design principle being integrated into science education, my mind immediately thought “oh, I definitely remember applying this to some labs while I was in school” and it remembered being tasked to design a cage for an egg that would protect it from a fall. Upon learning about the engineering design principle, though, I realized that I was wrong, and I had little exposure to engineering and design thought processes in my education.
In my experience with the “protect the egg” task, my teacher only tasked us to design one cage per student, and she then pit us against the design of our fellow students. We were basically told to apply our best guesses to our design in isolation from our peers and to compete head-to-head. There was no emphasis on planning, brainstorming, or, perhaps the most significant omission, the careful testing and prototyping of our revisions on our designs. We weren’t taught to look for points of failure in our designs that could be changed or critically examined. Though my high school offered a voluntary engineering class, there wasn’t much emphasis on it in our general science education, which I now find to be unfortunate.
In my opinion, I believe the inclusion of engineering principles in our science education is a great step in the right direction.
What are your thoughts on including engineering principles in our science education? What are your experiences with it in your classroom? How have you incorporated it? Please let me know in the comments!